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What Does the Future Hold for the International Space Station?

By Kevin Hellyer
Updated May 16, 2024
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The International Space Station (ISS) has been continuously occupied since November 2000, but after more than 21 years in space, the largest man-made object ever to occupy low Earth orbit is becoming obsolete.

Since 2019, cracks have been found aboard the space station, which orbits the Earth every 90 minutes. It’s feared that outdated equipment may soon lead to operational failures that can’t be fixed. So the final chapter for the ISS has been written: NASA says the space station will be ditched in January 2031, in an area of the Pacific Ocean about 1,700 miles (2,700 km) from any land. Known as Point Nemo, the region is the final resting place for many satellites and space stations (such as Russia’s Mir, which re-entered the atmosphere in 2001).

Saying "so long" to the International Space Station:

  • De-orbiting the ISS could be dicey. In 1979, an uncontrolled de-orbit of Skylab sent pieces of debris scattering across Australia. Most of the ISS is expected to burn up during re-entry, but its solar arrays could make the process difficult to control.

  • NASA has signed agreements with three private companies to launch commercial space stations in the future. They're expected to be operational by the late 2020s, before the ISS meets its end.

  • In the meantime, the ISS will remain busy with experiments, including work related to NASA's plans to send humans back to the Moon, and eventually to Mars. The Artemis missions will land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon.

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